Festivals and Celebrations of India
India is an extremely spiritual country with people who practice each of the major world religions. Because of this, it comes as no surprise that festivals and religious celebrations are an important part of Indian culture and identity. A great way to experience Indian culture with all its vibrant colors and ancient traditions is to participate in one of the country's many festivals.
In this article, we will break down some of India's most important festivals of the year including the most famous, most beloved by travelers, and some of the biggest regional festivals as well.
Whenever and wherever you go in India, you are likely to run into a celebration or festival. From larger nationwide holidays to smaller local celebrations, India has an abundance of festivals most of which are rooted in religion.
Below we will list some of the larger and most popular festivals in India in order of when they occur. Indian holidays are often based on the lunar calendar, so the dates change every year depending on the phase of the moon.
Jaipur Kite Festival
When: January 14th
Jaipur Kite Festival is a celebration of the sun passing into the Northern Hemisphere which is considered auspicious in Hinduism and known as Makar Sankranti. To celebrate this annual celestial change, the city of Jaipur has a festival dedicated to flying kites.
People come from all over India and all over the world to participate in the kite flying festivities and games. This festival is celebrated in much of North India, but Jaipur is especially famous for the incredible number and size of kites on display.
This festival makes for great photo opportunities with the colorful kites standing out against the browns and reds of the desert city.
The best way to experience the Jaipur Kite Festival is by getting involved in the kite flying and games. During this festival, many hotels will host kite viewing events on their rooftops and if you want to fly one yourself you can buy a kite at the Jaipur Polo Ground.
If you are looking for a peaceful kite flying experience then it is best to fly your kite in the morning. In the afternoon, kite flying becomes a competitive game where the last kite flying wins.
The goal of the game is to knock other kites out of the sky with your kite or even to cut the strings of other flyers. The winning kite flyers receive prizes at the Umaid Bhawan Palace at the end of the festival.
Where to Celebrate
The only way to fully experience this festival is to see it in Jaipur.
When: 14th or 15th of January
While North India celebrates Makar Sankranti by flying kites, South India celebrates the harvest with a four-day-long festival. In India, because of the monsoon season, there are two harvest seasons the biggest of which happens in January.
This festival is very important in South India and celebrated like Thanksgiving with big meals and family get-togethers.
During the first day of the festival, families clean their houses to get rid of any negativity and start decorating them. One traditional decoration that visitors will see everywhere during Pongal is the kolams which are colorful designs in the shape of flowers that are made from rice, colored powders, and flower petals.
The second day of Pongal is reserved for worshipping the Sun God, the third day is for worshipping farm animals such as cows, and birds are worshipped during the fourth day.
All of these days are meant to worship the important elements of the harvest and thank them for their help in creating abundant food.
One popular activity during Pongal is to explore the cities of Tamil Nadu to admire the intricate and beautiful kolams that have been created for the holiday. You can also join in the celebrations.
Most of the public celebrations happen on the third and fourth days of the festival when there are carnival activities such as decorated cows being paraded through the streets, cattle races, dances, and bonfires.
If you are in Tamil Nadu for Pongal, then it is important to eat the special Pongal dish called Venpongal. This dish is made in clay pots with rice, split peas, butter, cashews, raisins, and spices. These colorful clay pots are sold all over the markets before and during the festival.
Where to Celebrate
While the festival is celebrated all over South India, the best place to experience the festival is in Tamil Nadu. The cities of Madurai and Thanjavur have particularly beautiful celebrations.
When: The day after the first full moon in March.
Holi is also known as the festival of colors and is an extremely well known and vibrant festival.
Holi celebrates the triumph of good over evil and specifically the destruction of the evil demon, Holika. The festival starts at night when huge fires are lit and prayers are said to thank Lord Vishnu for the destruction of Holika.
The next morning is when the fun of throwing colored powders and water begins. People take to the streets armed with colors intent on covering everyone from head to toe.
In the streets during Holi, no one is safe and it is a blast to celebrate as long as you don't mind getting your clothes wet and dyed.
The biggest activity to take part in during Holi is the throwing of colors. This throwing of colors is meant to be a celebration of life and happiness. Although its great fun, if you want to participate in this festival you should make sure to wear old clothes as well as eye protection.
Also, some of the dyed powders don't easily wash out so you can expect to have bright colored splotches on your skin and in your hair for a few days.
Another way to celebrate the festival is to watch the burning of Holika the night before. Some cities such as Delhi and Mumbai hold special events for Holi with music, dancing, and color fights that are organized by the city.
Where to Celebrate
Holi is celebrated all over India, but the state of Rajasthan has some of the largest celebrations that include parades and dance shows in public areas.
Pushkar and Jaipur are especially great cities to visit during Holi as a tourist because many hotels will organize Holi events for their guests.
Around 15% of India's population is Muslim and Islam is one of the most widely worshipped religions in the country second only to Hinduism. Because of this, the celebration of Ramadan and Eid are very important in India.
Ramadan is one of the most important Islamic holidays and is known as a month of piety and purity which is shown by fasting every day and only eating at night over the course of the entire month. Eid is the last day of Ramadan and marks the end of the fasting and is a day of celebration.
During Eid, Muslims will typically wear new clothes, hold family gatherings, and eat delicious food.
One great thing to do during Eid is to visit the beautifully decorated Muslim markets and mosques. You can also watch the Eid namaz or the morning prayer in public spaces near mosques or in Islamic neighborhoods.
Another great way to experience the celebration is by trying some of the delicious Eid dishes such as Haleem which is mutton that has been slow-cooked for three days, sheer korma which is sweetened milk with dates, or biryani which is a famous Indian Muslim rice dish.
Where to Celebrate
Eid is celebrated all over India, but for travelers, there are certain cities that are particularly stunning during Eid. One great place to see the Eid namaz is at the Taj Mahal mosque in Agra. There you can see the iconic Taj Mahal as it is surrounded by people praying and celebrating Eid.
Delhi is also a great place to visit during Eid as it has ancient mosques such as Jama Masjid. In old Delhi, visitors will see many people going about their celebrations wearing colorful clothing and eating festive foods.
When: Late August to early September
Onam a 4-day festival that happens in the South Indian state of Kerala to celebrate the harvest and the return of the mythical King Mahabali. This festival is a stunning display of Kerala’s culture and heritage.
King Mahabali was said to have been a loved and popular demon king in Kerala which made the gods concerned.
According to legend Lord Vamana sent King Mahabali to the underworld, but the King asked if he could return to Kerala every year to make sure that his people were happy and well-fed. Lord Vamana agreed and so Oman is a festival to celebrate the return of the King.
To welcome their King, Keralites will create beautiful patterns and designs called pookalam, in front of their houses with flower petals. The festival also includes a feast in which food is served on banana leaves.
During Onam, there are many festivities and activities happening every day including traditional dancing, sports, games, and boat races. There are also pookalam decoration competitions to see who can make the most intricate and beautiful designs.
Visitors can also participate in the grand feast, Onasadya. Many hotels in Kerala will offer specials with festival food for guests staying during Oman. It is also possible to attend the feast at Thrikkakara Temple near Kochi.
Where to Celebrate
The only place where this festival is celebrated is in Kerala. In Kerala, the cities of Trivandrum, Kochi, Thrissur, and Kottayam put on the largest celebrations.
This 11-day festival takes place in Mumbai and celebrates the birth of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh.
The god Ganesh is a Hindu deity who is worshipped for his ability to remove obstacles and improve people’s lives. Ganesh Chaturthi also symbolizes the coming together of many social classes within India to celebrate and in the past unite against British colonization.
This festival is the biggest celebration in Mumbai and features huge handcrafted idols of Ganesh which have been intricately decorated and are worshipped throughout the celebrations. Each neighborhood in Mumbai creates their own idol and the neighborhoods compete every year to make the largest and most beautiful statues.
During the last day of the festival, the idols are all carried to a nearby body of water and returned to the earth.
During Ganesh Chaturthi, the main activity is participating in the parades and visiting the many different neighborhoods of Mumbai to see the idols that have been created for this year's celebration.
One of the best places to visit to see the idols is in Girgaum which is an old area in central Mumbai in which each small neighborhood creates its own idol. Here it's easy to get from neighborhood to neighborhood to see the different statues of Ganesh.
Where to Celebrate
The best place to experience this festival is in Mumbai as it is the main city where it is celebrated, but you can also find smaller celebrations in Goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh.
When: Late September or early October
Durga Puja is the large 5-day celebration that takes place in Kolkata every year. Durga Puja is similar to Ganesh Chaturthi in that this holiday celebrates a specific deity by creating idols. Durga Puja celebrates the goddess Durga and her victory over the evil demon Mahishasura.
During this holiday, large statues of Durga will be placed in homes and each neighborhood will compete to make large and beautiful idols of the goddess. On the first day of the festival, a religious ceremony is held to invoke the presence of Durga into each idol.
Then the celebrations begin with dances, parades, and visits to each neighborhood to see the statues. On the last day, the idols of Durga are submerged in a nearby body of water.
The main activity to participate in during Durga Puja is visiting the idols. The idols are held in different Pandals throughout the city, each one with a different theme.
Kolkata is famous in India for its great street food and Durga Puja is the perfect time to try it. With all the people exploring the city and visiting the idols, street food vendors set up around the most crowded areas selling everything from famous Kolkata chicken rolls to baked goods.
Where to Celebrate
Kolkata is the only major city that celebrates Durga Puja, so the only place to see the festival in its full extravagance is in Kolkata.
When: Late October or early November
Diwali is also known as the festival of lights and is India's most anticipated and largest celebration. Diwali is a Hindu festival that celebrates the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness with fireworks, lamps, and candles.
For many Indian families, Diwali is the most important holiday of the year. The celebration lasts for five days and overall is a time for family gatherings and personal soul-searching.
The first day of Diwali celebrates wealth. On this day people often buy gold and new household appliances. People also clean their homes in order to welcome the goddess Lakshmi who is the goddess of wealth and good fortune.
The second day is when people start lighting fireworks and decorating their homes. On the third day, lamps and candles are lit and placed in houses, shops, and along streets. On the fourth day, business owners open new accounts for the year and pray for success.
The last day of Diwali is for celebrating brothers and sisters as they come together to share food and be thankful for each other.
Much of the celebration of Diwali happens in the private homes of Indians, however, there are still plenty of ways for foreigners to get involved and experience the festivities.
One great way to experience Diwali like a local is to stay in a homestay with an Indian family. This way visitors can experience all of the ceremonies and rituals of the event.
Another enjoyable activity to take part in during Diwali is to explore the cities and appreciate the lamps and lights that decorate shops, homes, and streets. A great place to take in the beauty of Diwali decorations is in Jaipur, Rajasthan where markets and buildings are illuminated in celebration.
Diwali is also a great time to go shopping as Indians believe it's a good time to buy new clothes and household items. During Diwali most big cities have huge markets and fairs. Delhi holds a yearly Diwali Bazaar where visitors and locals can go to explore and barter.
Where to Celebrate
Diwali is celebrated all over India, so any major city is a great place to experience the festival. However, the states of Rajasthan and West Bengal are especially known for their beautiful Diwali decorations that light up the city and make for gorgeous photos.
Big cities can be very hectic during this celebration so it's important to expect large crowds and noisy chaotic streets.
Pushkar Camel Fair
Pushkar is a desert town located in Rajasthan and during the Pushkar Camel Fair thousands of camels are brought to the area to be bought and sold and also to participate in the fair celebrations.
The original purpose of the Pushkar Camel Fair was for camel traders to come together to buy and sell their camels during one large event. Today, the festival has become a celebration of India's desert cultures and the strength of its desert animals.
During the festival, camels are dressed up, paraded, raced, and even compete to be the most beautiful camel of the year.
There are plenty of activities to participate in at the fairgrounds including street performances by snake charmers, musicians, magicians, and acrobats.
Some of the most popular events to see for visitors include the camel races and beauty contests, folk dancing, the arts and crafts bazaar, and the longest mustache competition.
The Rajasthan Tourism bureau always releases a program of events before the festival so that visitors can plan around which events they want to see the most.
Where to Celebrate
The only place where it is possible to celebrate this fair is in Pushkar, Rajasthan.
Other Indian Festivals
There are so many festivals in India from so many different religions that there is no way we can explain all of them in one article. Other than the ones mentioned above, some important Hindu festivals include Janmashtami, Navratri, Baisakhi, and Dassehra.
There is also a large Christian population in India, so the holidays of Christmas and Easter are very important in states with larger Christian populations such as Goa and West Bengal.
In Punjab, visitors will likely see Sikh festivals and celebrations such as Gurupurab which takes place in November. In the Northeastern states of India, the majority of people belong to ethnic minorities and tribes so their festivals will be different from the ones celebrated by the rest of the country.
Tips for Traveling in India during Festivals
During the most popular Indian festivals such as Diwali and Holi, you can expect many tourists and travelers to visit India in order to experience the celebrations so it is a good idea to book travel and accommodation in advance.
Festivals are spectacular and happy times for most people in India so crowds of people will come out to celebrate in the streets. Cities can feel very chaotic and overwhelming during festivals and sometimes petty thieves will take advantage of distracted travelers.
Any time when you are in a large crowd it is important to protect your belongings and make sure to not get separated from your travel companions.
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